Found Footage Films

Not your typical movie about high school seniors

One of the movies that I’ve most enjoyed this year is Chronicle, a low-budget sci-fi flick with a mostly unknown cast.  It’s the story of three high school students who stumble upon the crash site of an otherworldly artifact and gain telekinetic powers. The narrative uses a plot device that has become increasingly common over the last decade and a half: movie as created from “found footage.”  In this case, the found footage is taken from video cameras, cell phones and surveillance tapes. It’s a very clever movie that combines humor, thrills and drama into a satisfying whole.

Coming to Terms: Not long ago, if you referred to found footage, you were most certainly talking about a documentary wherein a filmmaker used existing (often historical) footage and then edited it together to create a new work. Sometimes, documentaries are made entirely of found footage with only narration and superimposed graphics used to tie the footage together. More commonly, documentaries on historical subjects use found footage interspersed with newly-shot material, such as the “after” shots in “before and after” comparisons and interviews with subject experts.  Back when movies were generally shot in black and white (making film stock easier to match up), it was a fairly common practice to insert historical material (found footage) into fiction films.  As most films were shot on studio sound stages, it was often a necessity to use available stock footage to heighten the realism of events difficult to recreate on the studio lot.  Today, the routine practice of location filming, and the relative inexpense of quality special effects makes the use of found footage in fiction films a rarity.

These days, however, the term found footage has a new meaning. Now it often refers to the technique of creating stories that are told through the compilation of character-generated, or surveillance-created, footage, found after the fact by others. Virtually every fiction found footage film falls within either the horror or science fiction genres, and most are low-budget affairs with limited theatrical releases.

At the time, many thought the footage was real!

Most people regard 1999’s The Blair Witch Project as the film that created the found footage sub-genre. BWP was clearly the first successful found footage film, but it certainly wasn’t the first. That honor probably goes to Cannibal Holocaust, a 1980 Italian film that was deemed so violent that it was seized by Italian officials and banned there and in several other countries. That movie employed the found footage technique to a high degree, but as a flashback within a routinely shot framing story.

Probably the first film to feature the found footage device throughout its running time was 1989’s 84C MoPic, a movie shot in southern California about a combat cameraman filming an infantry platoon in Vietnam. Three other films used the narrative technique in the decade between the release of 84C MoPic and BWP, but none caught fire at the box office.

The Blair Witch Project, shot for an estimated $60,000 with no-name actors, grossed nearly $250 million dollars worldwide.  It became one of the most talked about movies of the summer of 1999, but, strangely, didn’t begin a salvo of similar movies in its wake.  It wasn’t until 2005 that the next found footage films were released.  Since that time, however, over two dozen such films have hit the screen.  For the most part, they have been bottom-of-the-barrel exploitation films, difficult viewing for even the most avid genre fans. Nevertheless, there are a few that are likely to go beyond the status of guilty pleasure to actually earn your respect.

The following titles are the best of the fiction found footage films (listed in chronological order):

In the chaos, everyone was losing their heads

  1. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – not everyone found this particularly compelling, but, after a slow buildup, I found the climactic scene to be extremely creepy and unsettling;
  2. Cloverfield (2008) – perhaps the best of all the found footage films, this sci-fi pic has the advantage of a much bigger-than-is-usual budget for this type of movie;
  3. [Rec] (2007) – the Spanish-made [Rec] (that means subtitles, folks), as well as its shot-for-shot American remake, Quarantine (2008), tells the story of a “routine” night with a fire house company that quickly turns grisly at a Los Angeles apartment building;
  4. Trollhunter (2010) – a rare Norwegian movie (more subtitles) that found its way into a few US theaters last year; a Hollywood version is in development;
  5. Chronicle (2012) – nifty special effects highlight this sci-fi story that works hard to flesh out characters and establish believable, often caustic, familial relationships.

Checkout any of the five found footage films on the list above (and/or the Paranormal Activity trilogy, The Last Exorcism, Apollo 18 and Project X) at the Des Moines Public Library.


The Unusual Success of Three Dog Night

On the way back from Kansas City recently, I heard “Joy to the World” playing on the radio. That is, the one that starts with the lyric “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine,” not the ever-popular Christmas song, which features no bullfrog by the name of Jeremiah, or otherwise. Three Dog Night made that song the biggest selling single of 1971, charting six weeks at number one, according to Billboard. “Joy to the World” was the most golden success in Three Dog Night’s run of. . . well, golden successes.

The Hits Just Keep on Coming

Starting in 1969 and for the next six years, there was rarely ever a moment when Three Dog Night didn’t have a hit on the Top 40 singles chart. In all, Three Dog Night landed 21 consecutive singles in the Top 40 during that span.  They weren’t just minor hits, either, as 18 of the 21 made the top twenty,  with 11 of those rising to the top ten, and three going all the way to number one (in addition to “Joy to the World,” there was also “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” and “Black & White”). Here’s the amazing part:  in their entire career, the band never had a single that appeared in Billboard’s Hot 100 chart that also didn’t make the Top 40! That consistently high-level of hit making is unprecedented.

“Joy to the World” was written by folksinger and sometime actor Hoyt Axton, who charted several mid-level singles on the Billboard country charts, but had his greatest success as a songwriter covered by other artists. In fact, Three Dog Night also rode Axton’s “Never Been to Spain” to a number five chart position. Axton was just one of several talented singer-songwriters whom Three Dog Night helped cash bigger royalty checks than they otherwise would have managed on their own. Among the others were Paul Williams, Randy Newman, Leo Sayer, Laura Nyro, and Harry Nilsson, who all enjoyed notably successful solo careers themselves.

The startling truth is that despite the fact that members of Three Dog Night wrote a few of the songs included on their albums, they didn’t write any of their hits! The secret of Three Dog Night’s phenomenal success was twofold. One, they knew a good song when they heard it, even if it didn’t chart for the original artist. And two, they were extremely gifted as arrangers, turning simple songs originally conceived for a single voice with spare accompaniment to complex, multi-vocalist interpretations with rock band instrumentation.

Between 1969 and 1976, Three Dog Night released 11 studio albums, two live albums and two compilations. For their efforts, they were awarded 13 gold albums and had combined album sales of 40 million copies. Not bad for a singles band.  They were, in fact, the biggest selling artist of the first half of the 1970s. And, in case there’s any question about their “chops,” Three Dog Night was also one of the top live draws of the time. Some rock fans and many critics, however, were, and remain, dismissive of the band due to their lack of songwriting skills. That doesn’t stop their legion of fans from continuing to love the band. Although Three Dog Night broke up in 1976, they reunited five years later as a touring band. They continue to entertain live audiences to this day, playing about 80 dates a year.

Still Going to the Dogs

In case you’re wondering as to the origin of the band’s unusual name, it came from Australia, where aborigines would rate the chilliness of a night by describing how many dogs they’d need to sleep with in order to stay warm. A three dog night was considered a particularly cold night. That tidbit was supposedly passed along to the band by one of the member’s girlfriends. The band liked the phrase so much that they decided to change their name from Redwood to Three Dog Night. And the rest, as they say, is history.

If you’d like to listen to Three Dog Night, the Des Moines Public Library has three compilations from which to choose:  Joy to the World: Their Greatest Hits, The Complete Hit Singles, and Celebrate: The Three Dog Night Story. I’d recommend either of the latter two, which both include all 21 of their Top 40 hits.

Bond 2 – The Maibaum Years

In June 1989, I was a struggling freelance writer living in Marion, Iowa, one year removed from receiving a masters degree in film studies from the University of Iowa. Early one Saturday morning, one of my professors, Charles F. “Rick” Altman, called to tell me that renowned James Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum was in Iowa City for the weekend.

Sean and Beyond

Altman said that Maibaum was willing to be interviewed if I could meet with him that morning. I cleared my (empty) schedule, borrowed a car and drove to Iowa City.

Maibaum was a charming, gracious and truly fascinating man. I recorded the interview and quickly wrote up an article in hopes of getting it published in conjunction with the imminent release of the Bond film Licence to Kill, which Maibaum had co-written. Maibaum, however, had asked to see the article before I attempted to sell it. After reading it, he asked me not to publish it, as he felt that he’d said a few things about people that might prove embarrassing should he run into them at Hollywood events. Disappointed as I was, I honored his wishes.

When Richard Maibaum died two years later, I figured there still might be interest in the article when the next Bond film was released. Well, the next Bond didn’t arrive until 1995, easily the greatest elapsed time between entries. By then, my circumstances had completely changed. I was handling a full course load in library school, working a part-time job, and taking care of my seven-month-old son half time to save money on daycare costs. Trying to find a buyer for the article didn’t even appear on my list of priorities. As a result, the finished article just hung around, migrating between various floppies and hard drives, for 23 years. Well, its time has finally come. Other than a few very minor (mostly stylistic) changes, the following article remains as it was written in June 1989. I hope you enjoy it!

If you ask the average person who the brains behind the creation of James Bond was they are likely to tell you, correctly, that it was English novelist Ian Fleming. If you sought to discover who was responsible for the conception of Bond as the globe-trotting, womanizing, witty, master-spy depicted in the screen series, however, the clues would lead to Richard Maibaum.

Who is Richard Maibaum? Any aficionado of the Bond series can tell you. Maibaum is the screenwriter who has crafted, either solely or in collaboration, 13 of the 16 so-called “official” Bond adventures produced by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and released through United Artists.

Maibaum’s credentials are nearly the equal to those of 007. A New York native, Maibaum has been a scholar – he attended the University of Iowa (BA 1931, MA 1932), a Broadway playwright, an actor in the New York Shakespearean Repertory Company, a Hollywood screenwriter at MGM, a lieutenant colonel in the Army during WWII, where he ultimately served as director of the Combat Films Division, a writer-producer at Paramount (his credits include The Big Clock and The Great Gatsby), and an executive producer at MGM-TV.

The ongoing success of the Bond films, however, will forever link Maibaum to the screen’s smoothest superspy. Recently, a few weeks before the opening of the sixteenth Bond saga Licence to Kill, Maibaum was in Iowa City to receive an award from the University of Iowa’s Alumni Association. During a break in his schedule, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with him about the James Bond series and his role in it. Dressed in tan jacket and slacks and brown loafers, he settled his athletic body comfortably into a chair in the lobby of the Downtown Holiday Inn. Silky white hair caps a rugged face; brown plastic frames with thick lenses do not obscure his alert, clear eyes. His well-modulated voice and general appearance belie his 80 years.

During the fifties, Maibaum was first approached by producer “Cubby” Broccoli – for whose Warwick Productions Maibaum had scripted several action pictures – concerning adapting the Ian Fleming spy thrillers for the big screen. Financing, film rights, and censorship problems, however, put the project on hold. By the early-sixties the social climate had changed and Broccoli had formed a partnership with Harry Saltzman, who owned the rights to the novels. Maibaum was called in and started work in earnest to fashion Fleming’s literary hero into a screen star.

Going for the Gold

“Fleming was a genius, a fine novelist and a marvelous personality,” Maibaum said, “he was really writing about himself, he thought he was James Bond.” But Maibaum points out that what comes off as believable on the printed page did not translate to the screen quite so easily. “Take Goldfinger for instance. (Villain Auric) Goldfinger’s plan to rob all the gold from Fort Knox is just nonsense. Somehow we had to cope with ghosting him through the illogicalities.

“Also, a lot of Fleming’s writing is just nice writing,” Maibaum continued. “We had to clarify, simplify, and most of all, we had to add the humorous side to his writing, a side of which he was not quite aware.”

Maibaum claims that the casting of Sean Connery as the original 007 was one of the chief reasons the series was so successful. He explained that Fleming’s Bond “is supposed to be a sophisticate: educated, cultured, a gourmet, and having all the skills of the English gentleman – none of which Sean Connery really was. So it was kind of a joke.” He said that the audience wasn’t really aware of this contrary casting, only that somehow they liked this “mug” playing that kind of character.

Maibaum points out that the Bond films didn’t just turn an unknown Scottish actor into a megastar but set the standard for a particular type of picture. “Don’t forget that in Dr. No and From Russia with Lovethe audience had not seen this kind of action-adventure picture. They had that working for them, too,” Maibaum said.

As is the case among many Bond fanatics, the early series entries featuring Connery draw the highest praise from Maibaum, as well. He considers From Russia with Love and Goldfinger as the two best films. “Those two set the pattern,” he said. He particularly likes the former because he thinks it achieves the most satisfying blend of emotional elements and stunt sequences.

Maibaum describes Connery’s work in the series as simply “marvelous” and was sorry to see him pull out in the late-sixties. “It’s a shame. I consider the script of On Her Majesty’s Secret Serviceas the best I’ve done in the series, perhaps because it was the fullest and most realized novel. The characterizations were more realistic and the odd thing is that I stuck very close to the book and it all seemed to work.

“If Sean had done the role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service it would have been far the best of the Bond pictures and (would’ve) been one of the biggest blockbusters of all time,” Maibaum claims. He took a deep breath and sighed. “Even so I like it very much – I think Gabriele Ferzetti was fantastic (as a villain) – and it’s one of my favorite pictures.”

Apparently, Australian model George Lazenby, who starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as the first post-Connery Bond, looked right for the part, but did not have enough experience to adequately assume the role. “I liked him very much, but he was very unprofessional,” assessed Maibaum.

After Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever, then departed once again, he was replaced by an actor of considerably greater staying power: Roger Moore. The seventies-era films got considerably high-tech and credibility was occasionally strained (Moonraker for instance is one which Maibaum volunteers he had nothing to do with). Moore, perhaps in self-defense, began playing the role increasingly broadly.

Bond, Over a Barrel

After Moonraker, Maibaum says that Broccoli called the team together and agreed that they had to “pull down the balloon a little bit and come down to Earth.” Maibaum said that they tried to change the tone with the next film, For Your Eyes Only, and the results were obvious. Nevertheless, Moore’s “fooling around spoofing” had become chronic and held throughout the remainder of his series entries, according to Maibaum.

“You can’t spoof a spoof,” Maibaum contends. “From the beginning ours was not a parody, but it was a rather humorous version of the story. Those adventures don’t happen, they’re in the realm of fantasy. So if the actor doesn’t take it seriously the audience sure won’t.” Still, he defends Moore by saying what a charming and skilled man he is and by admitting that his pictures “grossed tremendously.”

At the quarter century mark, the series was revitalized by the casting of Timothy Dalton as 007 and Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny in 1987’s The Living Daylights. Maibaum approves of the new Bond, “I like Timothy Dalton very much. In a way he hearkens back to Sean Connery’s interpretation.”

Maibaum’s task has become more difficult in recent years because the films now outnumber Fleming’s novels. Licence to Kill is an original screenplay by Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, though he says it does include incidents taken from the Fleming novel Live and Let Die, as well as the Fleming short story The Hildebrand Rarity.

The stunt sequences in each new Bond film still manage to amaze the public. You might expect that inspiration for further Bond daring-do would be at a premium. “Where your inspiration comes from is the amount of money you make every week,” Maibaum chuckled. Actually, he says, anybody in Broccoli’s production crew is likely to suggest an idea to the writers, especially the stuntmen who know it gives them an added chance to shine.

The Bond films have indeed set the industry standard and now must face competition from producers who have learned their lessons well. In a summer dominated by big-budget action pictures like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman, will Licence to Kill grab a giant’s share of the movie-going public? Maibaum declined to make a prediction, but offered, “All I know is that this one coming up is a very powerful picture, very powerful. The action is absolutely sensational.”

After 13 James Bond scripts over 27 years Maibaum denies that, like Ian Fleming, he believes he is writing about himself. Instead, he says, “my real name is Walter Mitty.” Obviously, there is plenty of Mitty in Richard Maibaum – and a little Bond, James Bond.

Bond Series Turns 50

On more than one occasion I’ve read or heard it said that the all-time greatest movie trivia question is “Who played James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?” Of course, the reason for that assessment is multifold. For one, the James Bond series is the longest running, uninterrupted movie series in the history of the medium.  Secondly, in terms of total box office gross, it’s also the most successful series of all time. Finally, for such a tremendously popular franchise, the answer to the question is incredibly obscure, despite the fact that the movie was a huge hit.

For moviegoers under the age of forty, give or take, it’s hard to describe the impact of the Bond films during its first two decades of life. It singlehandedly created the spy genre craze of the sixties, which was both a movie and television phenomenon. Sean Connery, still the actor most identified with the character, went from unknown Scottish actor to international star virtually overnight. The release of each Bond title meant lines down the block for any theater lucky enough to have booked it (that’s when movie theaters were the stand alone, not multiplex type). And, every entry had a new Bond girl who received reams of publicity and became an instant celebrity, though few managed to parlay that momentary fame into long-lasting career success. In a word, any Bond release was an “event.”

Agent Provocateur

Daniel Craig Takes Over

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, which started with the release of Dr. No in 1962. On Friday, Skyfall, the third entry to star Daniel Craig, will receive its U.S. release. Skyfall is the twenty-third film in the “official” series, produced from the beginning in various combinations, or solo, by Harry Saltzman, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson and Cubby’s daughter, Barbara Broccoli. For the record, there have been three so-called “unofficial” Bond productions: two films and one TV show. In fact, the first time Bond appeared on screen was on American television. Barry Nelson starred as “Jimmy” Bond in a one-hour adaptation of Casino Royale for the anthology series Climax! in 1954. That same story was later used as the basis for another “unofficial” outing, a swinging sixties comedy starring David Niven and Peter Sellers.

For many, Sean Connery was, and will remain, the only true James Bond. Connery starred in Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and (after a one-film “retirement”) Diamonds Are Forever. Later, he would unretire again to reprise the role in Never Say Never Again, one of the “unofficial” Bond titles. Starting with Live and Let Die in 1973, Roger Moore essayed the role in seven films, also including The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and A View to a Kill. Timothy Dalton, who the producers had originally hoped to sign as Connery’s replacement many years earlier, finally got his chance in the late-eighties with The Living Daylights and Licence to to Kill.

An unprecedented six years elapsed between Bond films after Dalton’s two turns. Skip to the mid-nineties, when Pierce Brosnan assumed the role in GoldenEye. In a case of history repeating itself, Brosnan had been the producers’ original choice to replace Moore in the eighties, but was contractually obligated to the NBC series Remington Steele and couldn’t extricate himself at the time. Starting in 1995, Brosnan took up the Bond mantle for four films. In addition to GoldenEye, he starred in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day. In 2006, Daniel Craig made his debut as the super spy in Casino Royale, followed by Quantum of Solace two years later, which brings us up to date with Skyfall.

So, there’s been a fair amount of continuity with the casting of James Bond, but not nearly as much as with the supporting roles. For instance, Bernard Lee played M, 007’s boss, eleven times, from Dr. No until 1979’s Moonraker. Robert Brown then followed with four turns as M before Judi Dench began her run of seven films, commencing with GoldenEye and continuing to the present release.  As for Q, the supplier of all the nifty gadgets, Desmond Llewelyn stands almost alone. Although he didn’t originate the role, he played Q a staggering nineteen times, from 1963’s From Russia with Love until 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, only absent from Live and Let Die. No other actor has played Q more than a single instance.  Likewise, Lois Maxwell played saucy secretary Miss Moneypenny fourteen times, from Dr. No through A View to a Kill, an uninterrupted twenty-three year span.  Caroline Bliss then played the role in the two Dalton Bonds and Samantha Bond (quite a coincidence, that) took over the character for Brosnan’s four-film run.  Those supporting roles and the actors who have played them for such lengthy periods are what have helped create the onscreen continuity of the Bond series.

Other keys to continuity in the series include the always rousing pre-credit action sequence (which has more action than many action movies have in their climactic scenes), the use of the instantly-recognizable James Bond theme music in every single film since Dr. No, and the gun-barrel credit sequence used in most of the Bond movies. Of course, the Broccoli family has long considered making the Bond films to be the family business. It’s an extended family, as many of the behind-the-scenes crew and creative talent have been used again and again. Of those, screenwriter Richard Maibaum was paramount in transforming the Bond world of the novels into the Bond world of the screen. Maibaum wrote or co-wrote thirteen of the first sixteen films in the series, ranging from Dr. No. to Licence to Kill. Next week, Media Musings will feature an article I wrote after interviewing Maibaum just prior to the release of Licence to Kill in 1989. That article, which was never published, will appear here for the first time.

Bond(s), James Bond(s)

Well, that about wraps it up for this post on James Bond.  Wait a moment, it seems as though I’ve forgotten something. Hmmm, what could it be? Oh, yeah, now I remember. So, who did play Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? The answer is Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, who opted out of playing further Bond entries – due to what he called mistreatment on the set – and into self-imposed obscurity, as his surprisingly long, but excessively undistinguished acting career attests.

The Des Moines Public Library owns all of the “official” James Bond movies, save Skyfall, which will be added in a few months. We also own Connery’s “unofficial” Bond appearance, Never Say Never Again. And, if you want to see Pierce Brosnan, pre-Bond, check out Remington Steele. The first mention of every title in this post is linked to our catalog, so have at it!